16 (x4) Books We Read Winter 2018

Whether you’re in the middle seat fighting for the armrest or on the couch in front of the fire, check out a16z’s biannual what we’re reading picks for your holiday list. Taking us from a World War II prison break to 19th-century Nebraska, or from ancient Greek myth to the autonomous-vehicled future, this list has something for everyone. As always, there are a few repeats; this year the overlapping topics touched on: bad blood, Adlerian psychology and Socratic dialogue, and a memoir of growing up in Silicon Valley.  

…from Martin Casado, general partner:

This is Water by David Foster Wallace. “I couldn’t make it through Infinite Jest. I loved Consider the Lobster. But This Is Water, while a simple reprint of his only commencement address, is the most direct view of one of this generation’s greatest authors. It’s a trivial read. It’s awkwardly self-aware. And sweet. And given the struggles DFW went through before his suicide, a poignant coda. If that is in fact, what it is.”

…from Connie Chan, general partner:

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld, Gabor Maté. I’ve read several parenting books and this is one of my favorites. The book reminds us that kids need to be emotionally attached to their parents, and that parents need not overreact if their kids seem shy or less social with peers at an early age. This is a book I’ll be sure to listen to again in a few years.”

…from Frank Chen, operating partner, deal & research:

Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car — and How It Will Reshape Our World by Lawrence Burns. Fun behind-the-scenes stories of the DARPA Grand Challenge races as well as the culture gap between Silicon Valley and Detroit. Did you know Stanley, Sebastian Thrun’s DARPA Grand Challenge-winning VW Toureg (now housed in the National Air and Space Museum), was one term in a lease agreement away from being a Ford?”

China’s Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans, and the End of the Chinese Miracle by Dinny McMahon. A longtime Wall Street Journal reporter based in Beijing wonders how long the Chinese banking system can kick the can down the road on the debt it has raised.”

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaser. “Harvard Professor of Economics Edward Glaeser argues that cities are our single. Best. Invention. Ever. This book is the perfect companion to Edward’s EdX class, ‘CitiesX: The Past, Present, and Future of Urban Life’.”

…from Sonal Chokshi, editorial team:

Small Fry: A Memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. “To be honest, I started this book to fill in the blanks of the Steve Jobs biography, but Brennan-Jobs’ unflinching, honest reflection ‘trojan-horses’ you into her story (and that of her mother’s). It also evokes a poignant nostalgia for growing up in that special time and place of 1980s Silicon Valley. Yet this is a story that anyone, anywhere can relate to — whether you’re a child of separated parents and gaping socioeconomic lifestyles (as she was); or a child of immigrants growing up between the sacrifice and the privilege that represents (as I was); or living in between worlds in other ways… The book leaves you with a sort of heartsoreness, because you realize your answers are in how you interpret the world around you — not just in the absolutes of events themselves — and that there is no better way to take (or take back) control over your life. This is the book I’ve recommended most to others this year.”

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. “This is the other book I’ve most recommended this year, and can’t believe it took me this long to read it! Am a bit allergic to award winners (an anti-heuristic for me), but it lives up to the accolades. It’s a deeply researched historical fiction novel that feels like non-fiction, covering four generations of a Korean family living through the time of Japanese colonization and beyond. Yet it is universal and timeless in so many other ways, balancing matter-of-fact survival with idealistic striving for more. A must read.”

Circe by Madeline Miller. “This book was so good, though it starts slow, spanning a sense of timelessness and loneliness. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of the witch-goddess Circe, who turned men into animals on her island pen and who stalled Odysseus on his famous journey. But Miller inverts so many elements — and power dynamics — of that narrative in such an incredibly well done, how-did-she-think-of-that way. For me though the best part was the focus on Circe’s *craft* as a form of power. I was so moved by this book in the end.”

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. “Halliday’s book agent recommended this book to me as one of the most interesting books of 2018. It was worth a read for the sake of that interestingness, though I am not a fan of ‘literary literature’. While it was indeed self indulgent, the story shifts from an expected May-December roman à clef (about Philip Roth!) to her unexpected telling of a detained Muslim immigrant’s story — which is so bold in this age of awareness around ‘appropriation’, voice, and power differentials of all kinds; hence the title.”

Crazy Rich Asians; China Rich Girlfriendand Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan. “I devoured this trilogy after watching the delightful (and breakthrough!) movie. But the books are even better. They also evolve the characters and contexts in a more nuanced way than the first book does, especially the story of Astrid Leong, who seemingly has everything and follows societal rules — yet still suffers for doing so before learning to let it all go.”

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. “I could not put this down, it was so gripping and read like fiction. It also made me sad when remembering that it was not fiction, but a real story that affected real people, whether employees or customers. I had wondered if there was some sort of ‘reality distortion field’ thing going on, but then you quickly realize (at least through Carreyrou’s telling based on interviews) that it was about lying vs. pushing boundaries, and there’s a clear difference between the two. What struck me most though is how there were people not just within the company, but at partner organizations, who didn’t believe it and spoke up yet weren’t heard. How many other orgs, including governments, have such unheard voices?”

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass series) by Sarah J. Maas. I shared this fantasy series in last year’s reading list, and this is the fifth novel, finally! — a stunning conclusion that really delivered. There were whiffs of The Return of The King to it, but it was so fresh and focused on multiple strong female characters and types. (Again, the strong male characters were actually *supporting* characters for the strong female characters, vs. the other way around.) Ultimately, the story shows imperfect heroes figuring out how to finally own their own power, holes and all, triumphing over their internal struggles and therefore over external battles too. The series also shows the power of sacrifice, and that heroes never win alone.”

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen. “This is the only non-fiction (or at least most non-fiction-like;) book in my list of recs this year; fittingly, I read it while visiting the Galapagos islands for the first time. But instead of chronicling Darwins’ much-chronicled travels, Quammen focuses on the development of the theory of evolution/natural selection — IMO, one of the most powerful and beautiful explanations of all time — including how it, well, evolved from idea to publication. Even if you’re not as obsessed with the topic of evolution as I am, any creator/maker/builder can relate to this book, because it’s really about the slow process behind the seemingly sudden outcome. Darwin actually delayed formal publication of his theory for two decades (‘Darwin’s Delay’) in the ultimate long-game idea maze, slowly incubating the ideas and absorbing various bits of evidence — including an obsession with barnacles (monographs on Cirripedia) — along the way. Simply extraordinary.”

…from D’Arcy Coolican, deal team:

Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. Fascinating and provocative analysis on the intersection of markets, politics, and society. It’s both a refreshing work of political philosophy that aggressively questions conventional wisdom, and also a how-to-guide on interesting (if radically ambitious) steps we could take to improve society.”

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. “An insightful, liberating, and sometimes disconcerting take on why humans do what we do, and how to change. The authors give an incredibly liberating — if challenging — perspective on how one can choose to see the world.”

Who is Michael Ovitz? by Michael Ovitz. “Insanely entertaining book where you’ll know most of the characters but few of the stories. Most biographies read like an elongated resume or a stump speech for a future political campaign. This does neither.” [related podcast with author]

…from Chris Dixon, a16z crypto general partner:

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone by Brian McCullough. “Best history I’ve read on the 1990-2000s era of the Web. For those of us who lived through it, it’s a really fun refresher. For others, it’s a quick and useful history lesson.” [related podcast with author]

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet by Katie Hafner. “Great compliment to How the Internet Happened, focusing on early pioneers (1950s-1980s) who paved the way for the modern internet.”

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. “This was a fun semi-historical novel focusing on the epic legal battle between Westinghouse/Tesla vs Edison. Good compliment to Empires of Light (one of my favorite history books).”

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by Ken Kocienda. “A really interesting inside look at, well, Apple’s design process under Steve Jobs. Apple is probably the premier product development organization of the last 20 years — and very little is known about it by outsiders — so inside peeks are always really fascinating.”

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. “Classic book that I admit I hadn’t read and my colleagues at a16z crypto got me to read. Interesting to pair it with Robert Caro’s Power Broker, about Robert Moses. Jacobs is indirectly responding to the top-down planning of the Moses era, arguing instead of a more bottom up, organic evolution of cities.”

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton. “I never really followed this story when it happened, so wanted to catch myself up. It is a real page-turner.”

High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil. “This is a great book that complements Peter Thiel’s classic Zero to One (an alternative title for Elad’s book would be “1 to n”). Everyone interested in the growth stage of startups should read it.” [related podcast with author]

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. “I just discovered Erik Larson this year and read a few of his books, but this was my favorite. It’s an exciting story of the sinking of the Lusitania, which reads kind of like an action movie switching between the characters on the ship to the submarine crew who sinks them. And apparently does all this while sticking closely to the historical record.”

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson. “I always look forward to Steven Johnson’s books (How We Got to Now is probably my favorite) and this one was great as always, discussing the best way to make very long term decisions. As usually Johnson does this by going on a wide ranging tour of fascinating ideas and people.” [related podcast with author

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. “Another book I had always meant to read but hadn’t 🙂 It really is as good as advertised. For me, the best book I read this year both in terms of learning and enjoyment. Truly epic story, showing humanity at both its best and worst.”

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “I always love reading Taleb’s books, even if I don’t always agree with him. This was up there with Black Swan and his other classics.”

Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun! by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham. “A docu-comic book that goes through how throughout history everything new that teenagers get excited about is deemed by experts to rot your mind, destroy society etc. Historical examples covered by the book include comic books, video games, D&D, skateboarding, rock music, and, believe it or not, chess.”

…from Katie Haun, a16z crypto general partner:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. “Fascinating to see how and why Theranos imploded as it did.”

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The negative consequences that accompany our increasing failure to have honest discussion and civil discourse. Over the holidays I’ll read some more uplifting/positive works as recommended by you all!”

…from Charles Hubbard, executive talent team:

The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age by David Sanger.About cyber warfare, Russia, China, North Korea, and the nuances, history, and consequences of the silent cyber wars currently taking place.”

Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly. “A remarkable autobiography about the US astronaut that spent a year in space.”

Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking.

…from John Jack, board partner:

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. “Great book, fiction, with a really good ending. Life in the marshes in the Outer Banks.”

…from Jeff Jordan, general partner:

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke. “Very compelling read on decision-making amidst uncertainty. I also thought the book was very pertinent to venture investing.” 

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler. “The book analyzes the drivers of very rapid, very substantial improvements in performance in a broad number of extreme sports, and includes suggestions for harnessing these drivers in other fields.”

…from Li Jin, deal team:

Small Fry: A Memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. “Aside from the unique perspective it offers on her famous father, this book stands on its own as a beautifully written coming-of-age story — of a girl’s search for belonging between her parents’ vastly different lives and in a complex blended family.”

…from Nait Jones, market development team:

Power vs Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior by David Hawkins. “This book covers the unconscious patterns that govern human behavior. David Hawkins’ writing style is enjoyable, and his thesis on how power and force rule the world in entirely different yet identifiable ways is very interesting.”

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. “Ryan Holiday is a fantastic translator of the ‘Stoicism’ philosophy (notable stoics include Marcus Aurelius and Plato). This, his fourth book and a great follow up to its predecessor The Obstacle is the Way (which deals with using failure and challenge as a pathway to recreation and success), is a great operating system for dealing with success and maintaining that success.”

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. “A fun read for optimists and pessimists alike about our world and drawing perspective from history. Light, fun, and hopeful.”

The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo. “A really good way of understanding how networks feed new invention, cultural change, and disruption. Joshua Cooper Ramo does a really good job here of provoking thought about how new ideas pierce the collective consciousness and become big enduring shifts.”

The Big Break: The Greatest American WWII POW Escape Story Never Told by Stephen Dando-Collins. “One of the best stories I’ve ever read. Just great storytelling about a prison break.”

…from Jen Kha, investor relations:

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters by Priya Parker. “If you’ve ever been in a meeting, conversation or event and thought, ‘What’s the point of this?’, read this book. Parker looks at why we meet and how we bond, and more importantly, how we can bring back meaning, purpose, and creativity to the way we gather.” 

…from John O’Farrell, general partner:

My Ántonia by Willa Cather. “Published almost exactly 100 years ago, this is a lyrical, romantic tale of pioneer life in Nebraska in the late 1800s. Written in evocative language that is an absolute pleasure to read, it transported me to a peaceful, unhurried time that contrasted dramatically with the sometimes frenetic pace of today’s Silicon Valley.” 

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck by Gary Kinder. “A book marking an important anniversary this year. Two absolutely gripping stories unfold in parallel: the 1857 sinking of the SS Central America, taking over 400 lives and 21 tons of California gold to the bottom of the ocean, and the extraordinary operation 130 years later to find and recover intact what has been called ‘the greatest treasure ever found.’ Written in 1998 at the height of another California Gold Rush — the dot-com boom — this book offers a compelling picture of the 19th century risk-takers who traveled West to find gold, and the late 20th-century entrepreneur who applied innovative technology and unbelievable determination to raise the wreck from the deep ocean floor.”

…from Andrew Chen, general partner:

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu. “One of my favorite books on technology history. The story starts around the invention of the telephone — in the age of telegraph networks and radio — and progresses all the way through to movies, television, all the way to the internet. The topics described are fascinating, how network effects manifest themselves over and over, how content and the underlying communications platforms get developed at the same time, and how government regulation often intervenes. I directly cited the story of movie studios and their ability to consolidate movie theater chains in a recent investment analysis, and reached a better decision because of it. Highly recommended.”

…from Jamie McGurk, operating partner, corporate development:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Why do you do the things that you do? Is it possible to change? Interesting look into understanding how and why habits form, dissecting incentives, actions, and rewards.”

Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright. “A practical look at the economics of the drug trade and supply chain. Facilitating analysis of a huge social problem when viewed in economic terms.”

Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. The illin’est communication.”

…from Amelia Salyers, editorial team:

Impossible Owls: Essays by Brian Phillips. “I defy anyone who considers themselves a curious soul not to fall in love with Phillips’ wry yet moving reported essays. In his opener, Phillips turns a straightforward reporting trip about following the Iditarod into a meditation on existential dread, on human connection vs. competition, and even on foreign affairs. The stories continue to blossom from there: hunting tigers in India, a scandalous oil tycoon who married his niece, a road trip to Area 51. Phillips is unafraid to follow the trail wherever it leads, both in the world and in the mind, bringing readers along for the ride.”

…from Nav Singh, firm ops team:

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover. [related podcast with the authors here]

…from Steven Sinofsky, board partner:

The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself by Robert H. Bork. “Social networks, search, internet providers, and more are increasingly being talked about in the context of antitrust law. One thing that comes up quite often is that European regulations look at antitrust through the lens of competition, and the U.S. looks at it through the lens of consumer harm. In this seminal work from 1978, Judge Bork defines this US doctrine. Could 2019 be the year this is reconsidered or challenged?”

The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers by Arthur R. Miller. “In this important work from 1971 on privacy and the law, attorney and scholar Arthur Miller outlines the risks that the then novel computes pose to privacy. Were his concerns fear mongering and high-brow concerns over technology diffusion or prescient and filled with foresight? The terminology is old (but fun), yet reading this book definitely makes one realize the privacy issues we wrestle with today are not new. Are the concerns outlined in this book different or the same as the concerns being raised by those who see new and great risk in AI?”

Planning a Computer System: Project Stretch, edited by Werner Buchholz. “Ever wonder what it was like in 1962 to create the first transistor-based computer? How did such a project get planned and executed? Imagine having to not just write the code or assemble the chips but to have to invent coding and wire up transistors. The IBM 7030 was such a computer, and this book outlines the engineering process to create this amazing machine. Gene Amdahl led the design at IBM and then left to form is own mainframe company (and a famous antitrust suit). The punchline is that Stretch was a v1.0 and failed in the market but paved the way for the ridiculously successful IBM System/360. Understanding what big multi-disciplinary projects look like is something that is lost today. Only a few places operate both at scale horizontally and vertically as IBM did in the 1960s. It is always good to have some background, plus just amazing when you read all the numbers that seem so trivial. The IBM 7030 had 170,000 transistors, weighed 200,000 kg, and took over 100 kw/hr of power. Oh, and it had about 2K of memory (words).”

Track Changes: Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. “In this modern and wonderful account, the author discusses how writers have wrestled with the use of technology to enhance the writing process. From George R. R. Martin — who uses WordStar still — through authors like Stephen King, who were pioneers in using word processors to improve throughput, the pros and cons are discussed. This is a book about writing more than technology, but the author is a techie as much as anyone reading this booklist. The book contains an interview with Evelyn Berezin, who passed away this week at age 93 and was the first to build a true word processor. ‘Track Changes’ comes from the name of the feature in Microsoft Office (previously called ‘Revision Marks,’ but never called ‘Red Lining’, which was the preferred term in Word Perfect and prior). Gotta love that. If you are interested in a history of word processors on micro computers then there is a wonderful ACM Computing Survey that details that history from Bravo (Charles Simonyi @ PARC) through the 2000s.”

Sweating Bullets: Notes About Inventing PowerPoint by Robert Gaskins. “A fantastic founders story told by founder and creator of PowerPoint, Bob Gaskins. This book details all aspects of the history of the product from before the genesis (founder origin) in 1986 through 1995, including some thoughts on pop culture and the product. It details the journey after the acquisition of Forethought through their move to Sand Hill Road R&D offices, the full rewrite in C++, and becoming a cornerstone of Office for Windows and Mac. PowerPoint achieved a degree of ‘world changing’ that few products do; from the boardroom to the classroom to the courtroom to the pew, PowerPoint has defined how people deliver information, good, bad or otherwise. In a series of over 200 1-3 page almost-‘blog’ posts, Bob details many specific scenarios such as deciding which platforms to target, which tools to use, the first screen presentation, transition to color Mac, and more. This is enormously fun to read.”

…from Hanne Tidnam, editorial team:

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman. “One of the very few books that have actually made me cry with laughter — multiple times. As sharp, funny, and brutally honest as Sedaris but with a somehow softer world view and a tiny bit less bitter, (fellow podcaster!) Hodgman is poignantly and painfully self-aware. A love song to the odd summer beach homes we’ve all experienced and loved, the strange human experiences we have in them, and the way humor helps us understand ourselves.”

…from David Ulevitch, general partner:

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. “An illuminating walk through all kinds of politics and leadership decision-making that clarifies so much about modern-day affairs and is, of course, applicable to company leadership decisions, too.”

Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson. “Writing is one the most effective and compelling mechanisms to communicate ideas effectively. This book will help you do exactly that. So many people need this book.”

…from Daljeet Virdi, firm ops team:

Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines Into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger Jr. “Air travel, believe it or not, was a really weird and scary idea when it first began. This story takes you through how flight was commercialized and the entrepreneurs with the risk appetite to make it possible. It puts today’s technology ventures in transportation (hyperloop, electric scooters and cars, and space travel) and the entrepreneurs leading them into perspective. History may not repeat itself, but can look very similar.”

…from Margit Wennmachers, operating partner, marketing:

Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger. “This is one of the best books on media transitioning from the old business model to digital. You truly feel like you’re inside The Guardian as it unfolds.”

…from Boris Wertz, board partner: 

The Courage to be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. “Fabulously engaging introduction to Adlerian psychology.”